Virtuous Circle or Vicious Circle?
Probably much of the political rancour in contemporary society is owing to two competing narratives, which can be summarised in terms of “virtuous circle” (or virtuous cycle) and “vicious circle” (or vicious cycle) particularly in terms of neo-liberal globalisation or “free market” economics. The notion of a “virtuous circle”, connected with the idea of the provenance and essential benevolence of the Invisible Hand, informs the neo-liberal mantra “a rising tide lifts all boats”. On the contrary, say its opponents, “your virtuous circle is a delusion” and they point to massive inequality, environmental destruction, climate change, recession, and other symptoms of growing social crisis as proof that, realistically, the “virtuous circle” is actually a vicious circle.
In those terms, they can point to “unintended consequence”, “ironic reversal”, “perverse outcome”, “revenge effect”, “blowback”, and ironic reversal generally as proof that the “virtuous circle” is a persistent, entrenched delusion, and that in reality our age is trapped in a death spiral — a vicious cycle.
It’s pretty clear, isn’t it, that the weight of evidence from the real world is firmly on the side of the “vicious circle”. Yet, these facts, quite evident and undeniable as they are, are indeed denied by very large constituencies — one of the great ironies of the times being even, that the greater the weight of evidence that we’ve entered into a vicious circle/death spiral, the greater the loyalty and allegiance to the narrative of capitalism’s “virtuous circle”.
I was thinking about that conflict as I was reading yet another parsing of Donald Trump’s constituency in the United States that appeared in today’s Guardian. It’s by JD Vance and is called “How Donald Trump seduced America’s white working class“. Even Vance’s somewhat sympathetic approach to Trump’s supporters can’t overlook the irrationalities and self-contradictions of their beliefs.
Is this not the same constituency that embraced neo-liberal economics in the first place?; the same constituency that fell for the propaganda of “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” and “a rising tide lifts all boats” and the hokum about “the virtuous circle”?; the same constituency that, nonetheless, voted for austerity, privatisation, and deregulation of the “free market” in the name of “the virtuous circle”? Is this not the same constituency that now denies any connection between consequences and outcomes and its own beliefs and actions even as it has become abundantly evident that the “virtuous circle” is a hoax? As long as globalisation of the “virtuous circle” appeared unidirectional (which is to say, imperialistic) it was embraced. But globalisation is not only bidirectional, it is multidirectional. As long as it was about a McDonald’s or a KFC or a Starbuck’s on every corner, it was alright. But when it suggested “taco trucks on every corner”, it became not alright. Now it becomes cultural imperialism and a threat to “white identity”, which is, apparently, identical with McDonald’s, KFC, Wendy’s and Walmart on every corner.
So, now it’s a matter of “making America Great Again”. Just when was that? Apparently the 50s, when millions were lifted out of poverty, joined the middle class, moved to the suburbs, and indulged in an orgy of consumption largely driven by the advertising industry, before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring shook up our complacency about the environment, before Martin Luther King and the civil rights movements, or the “counterculture”, peaceniks, and so on — a time, apparently, when the “virtuous circle” worked.
That seems to be the mythology of the Lost Paradise, anyway. But it is irrational. North America, in general, emerged unscathed by the destruction and devastation of the World War, which, for a while, eliminated all potential “competitors”, but which was bound to be a transient glory. Moreover, it was the widespread adoption of Keynesian welfare economics (or “New Deal” in the United States) and the social supports and public infrastructure it provided that raised millions out of the conditions of “rugged individualism” into middle class and suburban comfort (a mixed blessing perhaps). As has been noted, this New Deal, or more broadly the public welfare state, probably saved capitalism’s bacon since the great fear at that time, following the war demobilisation, was that, with peace, the conditions of the Great Depression and the law of the jungle as “virtuous circle” would resume.
Keynesian welfare state economics ran into its own limits in the self-contradiction called “stagflation”. Neo-liberalism became the cure for the self-contadiction of Keynesianism. But now, neo-liberalism is running into its own limits of the reasonable and into its own self-contradictions, particularly with the Great Market Meltdown of 2008. Cant’ go back. Can’t go forwards. Predicament. Dilemma. Drift. Vicious circle.
A lot of political “dog and pony shows” are arranged these days that are no more than public confidence building exercises — the appearance of having things in hand, but probably more to uphold the delusion, or deception, of the efficacy of the “virtuous circle”, which has become more a case of pissing against the wind.
But that is, in a nutshell, Vance’s “seduction”. It’s the persistence of that core “deception” which Adam Smith promoted in his Parable of the Poor Man’s Son. And is not Adam Smith’s “deception” but a persistence of Plato’s “Noble Lie”? That raises the question of whether there isn’t a fundamental and necessary deception or delusion at the very roots of the mental-rational consciousness structure that has become unconscious, and that might even be necessary for the mental-rational to function at all.
Apparently, no amount of evidence to the contrary is going to persuade the true believers to re-examine the “virtuous circle” story and meme. Indeed, the very defence of it has ceased to be reasonable at all, the assumption now being that, if it’s not working, somebody or something is to blame and their elimination — of them or of their influence — will restore the virtuosity.
Some observers, contra Vance, have disputed, though, that Trump’s core constituency is “angry white working-class males”, such as Ken Boag who notes,
According to the Gallup results, those who support Trump are slightly better off economically and employment-wise than people who don’t support him. While they are likely to live in areas that have suffered economically, they are also likely to be better off than their neighbours, and to have been spared the worst effects of the 2008 recession.
They are also significantly less likely to live in communities where there is a substantial immigrant population. In other words, Trump supporters are less likely than other Americans — and less likely even than other Republicans — to have regular personal experiences with immigrants.
In other words, Trump’s core constituency is actually what is termed “petite bourgeois” or “lower middle class” (ie, the famous “Little Guy”) — fearful of falling into, or back into, the lower class but frustrated in its aspirations to become “middle class” and so feels “squeezed” between two fates, as it were. This is, traditionally, the core constituency of the radical right everywhere, and that’s what Boag has described here.